What can be said about podcaster, filmmaker, and all around mouthpiece Kevin Smith and his work that hasn’t already been expanded upon, bitched about endlessly, overinflated, or blown out of proportion by fervent fans, ardent and skeptical detractors, or by the man himself, who happens to be one of the most aggrandizing self-promoters and fountains of untapped potential in film history?
Whatever one might think of the man or his films (which for me have always been hit or miss), there has to be some sort of admiration deep down for making a film as uniquely demented and borderline certifiable as Tusk, a comedy-horror hybrid that comes from an artist who seems at war with himself. Sure, it’s about a crazy mad scientist type trying to turn a dude into a walrus, but there’s also something keenly personal about the film that helps for some severe third act faults. It’s probably the most personal thing he’s done since Clerks, and that authenticity of vision shines through more often than not to make, at the very least, the most thematically interesting that Smith has produced in easily over a decade.
Based on an idea spun off from a half-assed podcast pitch, it’s the tale of Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) an uppity, arrogant LA podcaster who gets his rocks off on the misery of others via a show that mocks “weird” and “out there” personalities and news stories. He’s oblivious and numb to everything around him; completely self centred and contemptuous of anyone’s ideas but his own. He can’t even catch on that his best friend and co-host (Haley Joel Osment) has been sleeping with his girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) for quite some time. After a trip to Canada to mock a kid now in a wheelchair after an ill advised YouTube stunt with a sword turns out to be bust, Wallace happens upon an ad in a washroom for a man boasting of tales of the sea heretofore untold. Wallace, not wanting to admit defeat, heads up North to meet with the placer of the ad, Howard Howe (Michael Parks), an old man with plans for Wallace that are beyond grotesque.
The most interesting thing here is how Wallace has been constructed as a character. He seems to be a hybrid of Smith and the very critics the filmmaker has been raving against for quite some time. Wallace has a joke of a job that he takes seriously, and the joke isn’t lost on Smith, who has made more money podcasting and making public appearances in the past few years than he probably has from his catalogue of films. There’s something egoless and believable about Smith writing Wallace as a snivelling little shit with a sense of entitlement. In those respects, Smith seems to be admirably taking the piss out of himself and letting detractors know that he’s in on the joke.
At the same time, Wallace’s critical streak is undeniably mean and cruel, and probably purposefully so and deserving of some sort of punishment and comeuppance. It’s that dichotomy that makes the character a perfect candidate for Howe’s eventual experimentation to turn Wallace into an ugly, almost otherworldly hybrid of man and beast. There’s something oddly deep that can be said about how Smith probably views himself as his own worst critic, and that’s made plentifully apparent by the subtext here, and it’s nicely conveyed by Long.
And in typical Smith fashion, most of the set-up comes based around the dialogue and intimate conversations had between two characters about a single topic at a time. Once again casting character actor Parks in the same kind of erudite light that he did in Red State, Smith allows his captor and captive talk at length without feeling the need to get anywhere in a hurry. It’s conversational in a good way, and further proof that Smith can write threatening and challenging material if he’s called upon to do so. A literal fireside chat between the two leads that sets the plot in motion is much more of a showpiece than the film’s freakshow tinged major reveal.
But is it a great movie that shows Smith has gotten back on track? Not exactly. For all the positives there’s still a lot wrong here, and most obviously this film would have worked lightyears better as a short film with minimal set-up and nothing more than Long and Parks going at it. When the film suddenly decides that Wallace is somehow worthy of saving, Smith launches into a goofball take on Hitchcock’s Psycho climax where Osment and Rodriguez team up to head North and find out what’s going on. Initially, it works, but it’s thrown completely off the rails by a patently ill advised (and largely already spoiled) cameo from a major Hollywood star playing an ineffective detecting as a Quebecois stereotype.
At this point it feels like a movie where Smith started smoking a shit ton of weed when he started writing the screenplay, and then the giggles and munchies kicked in and he kind of stopped giving a shit and decided to slap together a comedy out of something that working just fine despite its oddball premise. Then again, maybe Smith knows his core demographic so well by now that screwing the pooch deliberately was part of the point. At any rate, the film starts vacillating wildly between uncomfortably unfunny stereotyping (a flashback with the cop and Howe in their younger days is leadenly unfunny, offensive in a bad way, and drags on forever and ever) and occasional flashes of seriousness that makes you wish Smith would put down the bong for five minutes and do a rewrite. Also, in terms of technical acumen, Smith pulls back on the promise he showed with Red State to deliver an alright looking, but almost hopelessly static final product.
It could have worked better than it does, but I don’t dislike Tusk with the venom that so many have already spewed in its direction. Still, the apathy that greeted the film upon its release in the States (where it underperformed two weeks ago, despite any claims by Smith to the contrary) feels justified. There’s something interesting going on here that’s never quite followed through on. You can easily see the potential, but it’s never realized. In a way, that also contributes to making it seem like the most personal film of Smith’s career in years.